Former House Representatives Sue Kelly (R-NY) and Lincoln Davis (D-TN) were recent fellows at the Institute of Politics. Their weekly seminars and discussion explored the risks and rewards of public service. Representatives Kelly and Davis sat down with the Gate to talk about D.C. politics, life experience, and their unique paths to Capitol Hill.
The Gate: Were you always interested in being in Congress?
Sue Kelly: Absolutely not. It was not on my schedule at all. I had no intention ever of running for office. When I ran for office, I was so shy that one of my sons came home, [and] he saw me walk up and start talking to people on the street and said, "Dad, Mom's talking to those people that she doesn't even know!" He'd never seen me do that before.
Lincoln Davis: It was never on my bucket list, running for public office, when I was a youngster growing up…My dad was always interested in who was elected, followed elections, always took sides on who was running, but never ran for office. No one in my family ever had, so for me—it came out of a desire to change some things, especially in public service. As an elected official, you can make that happen much easier than as a civic leader.
Gate: How did your life experience prepare you for being in Congress?
Kelly: I think that women make very good candidates because most women reinvent themselves. When they graduate from college, they get their first job and they either like it or they don't. But most women move on and move into lots of different jobs. When I was on the floor of the House, we did a little study on the Congress people that were there. The women had had from eight to ten different jobs in their lifetime. That builds a body of experience in a lot of different fields, and those women were enacting legislation because they understood the field. The men, on the other hand, had had four. Now, there are a lot of reasons for that, but the women were good legislators.
Gate: What are your thoughts on political lifers, or people who always knew they wanted to go into politics?
Kelly: The best legislators are people who have had life experience. They've run a company; they've worked hard in some industry; they've been military officers or something like that, where they've had control of other people and other situations. Those people make far better legislators than people who have never held anything but public office, and whose desire has always been to get up there on Capitol Hill. There are a lot of people who, in their head, run simply for the pursuit of power.
Davis: And they become failures and then they go to jail! [Laughs]
Gate: What sort of challenges do those political lifers who you say are like "blocks of wood" present?
Kelly: The worst part about it is when those people become chairmen of committees. They're just not with it enough, so you have to work with their staffs. Most people in Congress…are pretty sharp people. The problem I have with the ones who haven't had life experience is that their perception of what they're doing there and how they handle situations with their constituents is very different from people who have life experience and can relate to people very quickly.
Gate: What about the obstacles that come up in getting legislation passed? Particularly when you’re personally invested in the legislation.
Kelly: It's very, very hard. First of all, no one in the House, or very few people in the House, ever have their names on a bill. So no one across America has any idea that Lincoln Davis is pushing a particular bill or Sue Kelly has offered that particular bill…It's very frustrating because lots of times, the legislative process is long and rather arduous because of the steps that the bill has to take…By the time you run through all those steps, you better have been on the Washington, D.C. floor of the House for many years. Otherwise, legislation just doesn't go through the chute that way.
Davis: Most folks who look at major legislation see that it takes years and years and years to pass…In essence, major items of legislation do not pass in one term. They don't pass probably in the lifetime of the Representative. But the work that one is doing on an issue that is relevant to America and that is important to him or her and his or her constituents will also be relevant to other folks. So other people will pick up that banner and keep moving it until something happens.
Gate: Do you think changes need to be made to the Constitution?
Kelly: There are absolutely prerequisites that have to be met. Otherwise, the change won't happen. We tried, years ago, to get the Equal Rights Amendment for women and it didn't get through. You have to have a number of states buy it, and you have to have hearings. All kinds of things are set up that have to be met. If you don't make it over all those hurdles, there will be no change in the Constitution. What changes our Constitution right now is the Supreme Court and their idea of what they think the Founding Fathers meant when they wrote the Constitution…I doubt that the United States is of a mind right now to do anything to honestly change the Constitution. I would have thought that we would have a bill that might stop the enormous and heavy flow of money that is helping to ruin politics on Capitol Hill. The Supreme Court said, "If you pass it, we will make sure it never sees the light of day." So we didn't even bring it to the floor because there's no point in passing a bill that we know is unenforceable or will be shut down by the Supreme Court.
Gate: What about all the organized money is so bothersome?
Davis: What they're saying is that in the First Amendment with religion and speech, you can't stop free speech, and free speech means that if you're an individual and you want to spend $10 million of your own money in a campaign, then you can do that. However, if there's someone else who wants to spend $10 million on a campaign, that's not free speech. It becomes free speech that you can regulate.
Gate: You both were Representatives of the party opposite the dominant party in your states. What was that like?
Davis: I think running as a candidate and as an individual: You are who you are. For me, there are always two requirements before I would ever consider running for a race: First, is there a need? Is someone doing the job now? Do you just want his or her job? If there's a job that's being done by that candidate, support them. Secondly, if they're doing a good job, can you win? Show me the numbers. In essence, why would you waste your time putting yourself on the ballot if you knew that it's an impossible task to win? … Now, in Tennessee, those two answers were easier to look at and say yes than it is today. So in Tennessee today, if you're running, you almost have to run as a Republican or you won't win. I had a fella ask me today whether I'd run again, and I said, "I don't think you'd want to vote for a person who would automatically tell you that they have a whole lot less intelligence than you want to serve in office." He said, “What do you mean?” I said, "Anyone who runs as a Democrat in Tennessee is crazy. Would you vote for a crazy person?” [Laughs]
Kelly: I didn't have any problem with the fact that I was a Republican [running against] a Democrat. I was me. I had certain beliefs. I’m a small businesswoman, and I had strong beliefs about the need to do what we could to help the small businesses of the nation. That was really my big platform. People got it and they voted for me.
Gate: What were your most memorable experiences in Congress?
Davis: I think for me, when I went to Washington, the Iraq invasion was in March 2003. I was sworn in in January. Then, about twenty National Guard units were activated in my district to go to Iraq, and my first visit to them put me on a C-30 and flew me into Kuwait, up into Baghdad, and then on. When we started to board the plane to come home, there was a flag-draped casket in the plane. They actually boarded it before we got on. There was extreme reverence and silence in that plane coming back. We knew that there was a dead soldier in that coffin. So I think to me that was one of the most stirring moments of my time…In essence, it forced me to think about how my decisions make a difference. Somebody's decisions made a difference in that young boy's life and the lives of that young soldier's family.
Kelly: I can't tell you the thrill I felt every single day [when] I walked four blocks to my office. Every morning, I'd get up and walk down and look at that dome and think, "Thank you God, I get a chance to do this." It's so thrilling to be a part of this vibrant community on Capitol Hill. The other one is the fact that, when 9/11 happened, the Towers went down and took my friends with them. There were times when I would come home and on a weekend, I would go to five funerals, weekend after weekend, of people who had died from my district in those towers.
When I went down there, when I finally got out of Washington and got back up into the district, they said you've got to go down to talk to people down there because there are some people that needed to talk to me about what I was doing on Capitol Hill. In order to get there [to “Ground Zero”], they said you must wear boots and jeans, and as I was walking, I was almost hip deep [in rubble, ashes, and debris] in some places, and I knew that those could have been the ashes of my friends. I will never forget that.